Exercise fads come and go and one of the more recent is kettlebells. Kettlebells are not, in fact, new at all and pre-date almost all other forms of strength training with the exception of bodyweight training. The strongmen of India, Russia, and even Scotland all used heavy balls with handles on them to develop prodigious strength long before kettlebells re-emerged and gained increasing popularity a few years ago.
Modern kettlebells are based on Russian cannonballs and their weight is sometimes still measured in poods – a Russian unit of weight made up from 40 Russian pounds – one pood being equal to 16 kilos or 36 regular pounds. For this reason, many kettlebell aficionados will happily inform you that Russian kettlebell training is the basis of the modern kettlebell revival. This is in part perpetuated by Pavel Tsatsouline who is largely responsible for raising the profile of kettlebell training; he’s Russian in case you hadn’t guessed!
What are kettlebells good for?
Kettlebells can be used to develop any number of fitness components. Heavy kettlebells can be used to develop strength and power while lighter kettlebells lend themselves better to building muscle and developing fitness. Some kettlebell exercises demand and develop joint stability and mobility while kettlebell swings for high reps are a very effective fat burner and conditioning exercise.
They can be lifted, swung, and pressed an any number of different ways and there are some truly unique kettlebell exercises that are hard to replicate with any other training device. They are versatile and fun to use and will definitely provide a demanding workout for beginner through to advanced exercisers.
Kettlebell exercises are usually performed with one weight in each hand. This helps develop strength evenly on both sides of the body and also provides a balance-improving benefit. This is in dramatic contrast so most resistance machine exercises and even some barbell exercises. Many kettlebell exercises are done one side at time which provides a very good core workout too.
The off-center position of the kettlebell’s mass also makes for a unique and challenging workout. You have to work hard to keep the load over your center of support which makes many kettlebell exercises harder and more demanding than their dumbbell counterparts. In exercise, harder often means better in terms of benefits and results.
So, does that mean you should switch over to kettlebells and turn your back on all other types of training? Not so fast comrade…
While some exercises are great with kettlebells, better even, some exercises are not so well suited to kettlebells. For example, the barbell back squat is arguably one of the best exercises for developing leg strength and size. And while you can squat with kettlebells, you are limited by several factors, not least the weight of your kettlebells and the fact you have to rack and hold them on your shoulders. Deadlifts are similarly less affective when performed with kettlebells instead of a barbell.
However, cleans and snatches are much easier to learn and perform with kettlebells than barbells – something to consider if you want to add some power exercises to your routine but don’t want to spend many months learning these exercises using barbells.
Another disadvantage of kettlebells is that they are mainly available in fixed weights. If your gym has a full set of kettlebells, this is not so much of an issue but, if you are buying your own and budget is a consideration, this may mean you have to use a small number of kettlebells for a wide number of exercises. If the weight is too light or too heavy, you may limit the benefit of your workouts.
There are adjustable kettlebells available but they are not especially robust, nor are they heavy enough for more advanced or experienced exercisers.
Kettlebells can also be expensive. Although they are hard wearing and should last a lifetime, initial cost may mean you are only able to buy a couple of kettlebells. This will reduce the number of exercises you can perform.
If you do decide that kettlebells are for you, there are dozens of exercises you can perform – some being better than others. From all those exercises, you can probably narrow your exercise choice down to five. These represent the best kettlebell exercises that will provide you with the most bang for your buck!
1. Goblet squats
Gripping the vertical horns of your kettlebell, hold it close to your chest and with the handle just under your chin. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your elbows tucked in close to your sides. With your chest up and looking straight ahead, bend your knees and squat down without leaning forwards. Stand back up and repeat. You can also perform this exercise with the kettlebell inverted which is more demanding.
2. Kettlebell Swings
Swings develop your legs, butt, back and arms. Performed for high reps they provide an effective aerobic workout whereas low reps will develop strength and power. Stand with your feet shoulder–width apart. Hold a single kettlebell in both hands. Bend your knees into a shallow squat and push your hips back. Bend forwards and lower the kettlebell between your knees.
Thrust your hips forwards, extend your knees and swing the kettlebell up to eye level. Let gravity pull the ‘bell back down to the floor while simultaneously bending your knees and hips to return to the shallow squat position. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
3. Wrestlers’ Row
Wrestlers’ rows will strengthen your legs, glutes, back and arms. Hold a kettlebell in each hand and stand with your feet hip distance apart. Bend your knees slightly and lean forwards from the hips until your upper body is almost parallel to the floor. Leading with your elbows, pull your hands back and into your lower ribs–this is your starting position. Keeping your right arm pulled into your sides, extend your left arm towards the floor. Pull your arm back into the starting position. Next, extend your right arm while keeping your left arm in place. Continue this alternating pulling pattern until your set is complete.
4. Floor Press
The floor press is an effective chest, shoulder and triceps exercise. Place two kettlebells on the floor and lie between them so that they are level with your shoulders. Place your hands inside the handles so that the ‘bells are resting against the outside of your forearms. Press the weights to arms’ length. Keeping your head on the floor and your legs bent, bend your arms and lower the kettlebells until your upper arms come into contact with the floor. Immediately drive the weights back up to arms’ length. You can also perform this exercise using one kettlebell at a time or using an alternating arm action for variety.
5. Turkish Get Up
The Turkish get up, or TGU for short, is a whole body exercise with particular emphasis on your core. Lie on your back with your legs straight and holding a single kettlebell in your outstretched right arm. This is your starting position and you must endeavor to keep your arm perpendicular to the floor throughout this exercise.
Bend your right leg and place your foot on the floor. Push with your right leg and roll onto your left side while keeping your arm extended up towards the ceiling. Place your left hand on the floor and use your left hand and right leg to drive forwards and sit up. As you sit up, bring your left leg in and take your right leg forward. Position your feet so you are in the bottom position of a lunge and then stand up.
To complete the rep, reverse the movement to get back to the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and then change sides.
There is no denying that kettlebells can provide a great workout but that doesn’t mean you have to commit to them 100% and ignore all the other awesome training methods that are available to you. Kettlebells are simply another tool you can use to get yourself in good shape. While they are different to barbells, dumbbells, bodyweight exercises, medicine balls, suspension trainers, and all the other tools available for training, they are not necessarily better. Use them when they are the right tool for the job but don’t feel you are missing out if you don’t have access to them or prefer as alternative method of training. At the end of the day, your muscles know nothing other than work and tension and not the shape of the weight you are lifting!